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  • The Performative Violence of the Wedding Dress:Teaching Queer Theory through Object Orientation
  • Katie Beswick (bio)

The ubiquity of the image is striking in its absolute sameness. White teeth, white dress, more often than not white woman. Sometimes, it is girls I haven't seen for fifteen or twenty years; girls who are now women, slimmed down and made-up, covered in white satin or lace or silk. Sometimes it is celebrities, or friends of friends, or royals—made as conventionally beautiful as they possibly can be for the consumption of the camera. These days the spouse is not always a man, although often there is a man in the photo somewhere, dressed in a dark suit that is invariably easier to move in than whatever the women are wearing. Not that you would sense discomfort from the image: in the image, the woman is almost always smiling.

This smile remains, despite what that white dress is doing to her body and what it symbolizes. The corset style of the popular strapless dress, restricting breath as it constricts the ribcage. The heavy skirt of the ballgown type "princess dress" that tugs at the skin where waist meets bodice. The way the fitted, flared mermaid dress that narrows until it spills out at the ankles might cause the bride to trip over and fall flat on her face. The residual expectation of virginity, obedience, and motherhood. The veil that conceals the woman underneath it, rendering her a homogenous bride (fig. 1).

"How does the wedding dress perform violence?" This question is designed as a provocation to students of theatre and performance encountering queer theory for the first time. I have found that using objects as a way into queer theory is a generative method for encouraging performance students to reflect on how cultures of heterosexuality, patriarchy, and shame are sustained. It also offers methods for looking at performance and cultural objects "queerly"—that is, conceptualizing how bodies and objects are "gendered, sexualised and raced" (Ahmed 5) in ways that are normalized and valorized so that they become part of the overarching hegemony through which culture operates.

The white wedding dress is a useful starting point for theatre students because it is at once an object, a costume, and a symbol—it is drenched in meaning, desire, expectation. As the narrator in Angela Carter's novel The Magic Toyshop describes it: "Symbolic and virtuous white. White satin shows every mark, white tulle crumples at the touch of a finger, white roses shower petals at a breath. Virtue is fragile. It was a marvellous wedding dress" (13). Understanding the politics of the symbolism that immerses culture is essential for future artists and creative producers. Most students, from a range of backgrounds, arrive at the university with some familiarity and unexamined existing feelings about white wedding dresses, thanks not only to the trope of marriage as resolution and happy ending in film, theatre, and literature, but also to the dominance of Western (particularly the United States') culture on much of the world stage.

For many of the students I teach, the goodness of marriage and therefore positive associations with wedding dresses are taken for granted and reinforced everywhere, but especially by the recent successes in the struggle for equal marriage fought by gay rights activists and the widespread acceptance of marriage between gay and lesbian couples in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. [End Page E-1]

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Fig 1.

A groom presenting love roses to his beautiful bride.

My own uneasy feelings about marriage and its attendant cultural symbols are often a site of disorientation for my students. I believe in using one's own feelings and experiences in the classroom as a means of critically unfastening students from their orientations toward objects and ideas. Feeling differently from the dominant culture serves as a method for "creating a new angle" (Ahmed 4) and inviting students to look from it. Of course, offering students access to any perspective that might unsettle their existing worldviews must be done in a way that creates room for disagreement and (difficult) feelings. It is also important to create space for critical inquiry, and...


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